The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

October 26, 2012

Bringing positive reinforcement into the classroom

Program teaches preschool children respect, responsibility, safety

OTTUMWA — You won’t see pushing and shoving in Pickwick Elementary’s preschool classes, only “please” and “thank you.”

Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) is a framework for teachers to incorporate positive reinforcement into their daily interactions with students in order to promote respectful, responsible and safe behaviors.

Angie Van Polen, PBIS trainer and coach for Great Prairie Area Education Agency, observed preschool teacher Jan Wetrich’s class Thursday. The agency observes the classes once each spring and once each fall to gather data to report to the Iowa Department of Education.

“It’s a positive way to interact with children instead of saying, ‘No. Stop,’” Van Polen said.

Instead of scolding children for what they’ve done wrong, it teaches children what they should do the next time they’re in the same situation.

“It’s research-based, it’s not curriculum,” Van Polen said. “It’s a framework, a philosophy of how to work with reinforcement of good behavior guided by behavioral expectations.”

The program focuses on two qualities: respect and safety.

When you walk into classrooms, you should hear teachers using positive reinforcement to guide students’ actions and reactions, Van Polen said.

After snack time in preschool teacher Maria O’Dell’s classroom Thursday, her students carefully folded their napkins, poured the rest of their milk down the drain and made sure everything was thrown away before grabbing a book.

“Are we using nice hands with the books?” O’Dell called out as the kids started swarming the bookshelves.

When some students hesitated before sitting next to their peers, O’Dell reminded them that they were all friends and needed to fill in all of the spots for story time.

The teachers also use emotional literacy, using books to teach children positive and negative words to describe their feelings.

“These are skills we know kids need to be ready for kindergarten,” Van Polen said.

And these skills are not just necessary in the moment, they’re skills needed for the rest of their lives, she said.

The hope is that PBIS will spread through the entire school district in all grades, she said.

After returning from a seminar, Van Polen said Seton Catholic School teachers were asking administration if they could start using Schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports (SWPBS) with their students.

The Ottumwa School District has participated in the program since 2006, and teachers say they’re seeing changes.

And Ottumwa is unique in that it has access to training and coaching from Great Prairie AEA, whereas other communities may say they’re incorporating PBIS, but can’t be held accountable through training and observation, Van Polen said.

Four family workshop nights will also be held soon to teach parents about PBIS and give them the same tools teachers use in school to continue teaching it at home.

“It will teach them why it’s so important to play with their children,” Van Polen said. “They shouldn’t tell them, ‘Don’t. Stop.’ instead of telling them what they can do.”

A lot of times, parents get caught up in a child’s challenging behaviors instead of addressing what can be done to change those behaviors into something positive, she said.

“It’s a mind shift we have to take on,” Van Polen said. “Just because you’re trained doesn’t mean it happens right away.”

Wetrich said she becomes more and more comfortable with the program every year and has seen changes in her students.

“In September, we went to the library and showed them what they can do in the library, using their inside voices, don’t run because it’s not safe,” she said. “And we teach them the reasoning behind these things.”

Teachers and parents can’t make assumptions that kids know how to act when they walk in a room, Van Polen said.

The program also uses verbal and visual cues to teach children in order to adapt to each child’s learning style. Not only do they tell the kids what they need to do, they reinforce it with cards, projects and activities.

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